Judith Butler

Judith Butler's philosophies and work on sex, gender, and queer theory have served as a wealth of information for those interested in improving their understanding of gender and queer identity - both inside and outside of academia. In this article, we will provide you the student with a basic overview of their theories and concepts with the goal of helping you improve your knowledge of Butler's main ideas.    

Judith Butler Judith Butler

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Table of contents

    Judith Butler Biography

    Judith Butler, Judith Butler giving a speech StudySmarterFig. 1 Judith Butler

    Judith Butler (they/them) is an American philosopher and gender theorist, who provided the motivation for the third wave of feminism. Butler was born in 1956 in the United States. They studied philosophy at Yale University, obtained their BA in 1978, their MA in 1982, and their Ph.D. in 1984.

    Third Wave of Feminism

    The third wave of feminism centred on a movement for universal Reproductive Rights. In the US, this wave responded to the Supreme Court's decision to uphold, the restrictive measures placed on abortion and the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act. Feminists campaigned for universal Body Autonomy, such as having the right to access contraception and abortion services.

    Butler was very much interested in the theories surrounding culture, gender, and sex. They wrote a thesis on the impact that Hegelian influences have had on French society. They also performed extensive work on the theory of the performative nature of gender and sex, which we will cover later in this article.

    Hegelian Influences

    Hegelian Influences arose from the philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, which states the following: It is possible to express reality through a rational lens. Meaning that reality is rational.

    He has also stated that there is a three-stage process that indicates humans are in constant motion.

    1. An-sich (A German term for "in itself.")
    2. Anderssein (A German term for "Out of itself.")
    3. An-und-für-sich (A German term for "In and for itself.")

    Judith Butler Theory

    Throughout their career as an academic and activist, Butler's theoretical criticisms have highlighted the discriminatory norms and values associated with perceptions of homosexuality in patriarchal societies. The application of this critical lens challenges heteronormative societal norms and has fed into wider social movements related to LGBTQIA+ rights.


    Often referred to as a patriarchal system, patriarchy typically favours the interests of cis-gendered men, often to the detriment of women and gender variant individuals.


    Refers to the view that promotes heterosexuality as the norm.

    An example of Butler's work includes a theoretical criticism of Julia Kristeva and Jacques Lacan. When analysing Kristeva's work Butler opposed the view suggested by Kristeva that homosexual relationships, between women, stemmed from unmet sexual needs within heterosexual relationships.

    Julia Kristeva

    Julia Kristeva was born on 24th June 1941 in Sliven, Bulgaria. She worked as a critic, educator, novelist, and psychoanalyst. She became a prominent contributor to philosophical Feminism.

    Judith Butler Julia Kristeva a Roma StudySmarterFig. 2 Julia Kristeva a Roma

    Jacques Lacan

    Jacques Marie Émile Lacan was born on 13th April 1901. During his lifetime he was known as "The French Freud." This was due to his contributions to the study of Psychoanalysis.

    Judith Butler Jacques Lacan StudySmarterFig 3. Jacques Lacan

    Furthermore, Butler also rebuffed the theoretical work of Jacques Lacan, who had inspired Kristeva's theory. Lacan had posited that homosexuality arose due to the failure of heterosexuality. In response, Butler highlighted that:

    If Lacan presumes that female homosexuality issues from a disappointed heterosexuality, as observation is said to show, could it not be equally clear to the observer that heterosexuality issues from a disappointed homosexuality?”2

    Such a theoretical critique from Butler highlights the flaws in both Lacan's and Kristeva's work related to homosexuality. Simply put, Butler's work related to queer theory, challenges societal endorsement of heterosexuality as the "norm".

    Judith Butler: Feminist Theory

    The feminist theory of Judith Butler can be found in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, which was published in 1990. It states that certain behaviours that can be attributed to either males or females should be viewed as a performance, which arose as a consequence of heterosexuality being imposed on and endorsed by society.

    Butler also believed that society drew links between the concepts of sex and gender, by imposing norms that had to be followed by individuals, in order for them to be successful. Importantly, Butler holds a strong belief that gender is a social construct and that there can be multiple genders.

    If the immutable character of sex is contested, perhaps this construct called ‘sex’ is as culturally constructed as gender; indeed, perhaps it was always already gender, with the consequence that the distinction between sex and gender turns out to be no distinction at all.”3

    Such a view challenges that there are only two gender binaries and that individuals must conform to either female or male identities. Rather Butler advocates for non-binary gender identities to also be acknowledged and celebrated.

    Gender binaries

    This is a type of classification system wherein it is believed that there are only two genders, i.e. male and female. Typically it is assumed that the sex allocated at birth will influence the social norms, expressions, and gender identity an individual exhibits.

    Queer Theory and its influence on Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity

    By accepting the idea that there are many genders in society, Butler is also validating Queer theory, a theory coined by Gloria Anzaldua.

    Let's face it. We're undone by each other. And if we're not, we're missing something. If this seems so clearly the case with grief, it is only because it was already the case with desire. One does not always stay intact. It may be that one wants to, or does, but it may also be that despite one's best efforts, one is undone, in the face of the other, by the touch, by the scent, by the feel, by the prospect of the touch, by the memory of the feel. And so when we speak about my sexuality or my gender, as we do (and as we must), we mean something complicated by it. Neither of these is precisely a possession, but both are to be understood as modes of being dispossessed, ways of being for another, or, indeed, by virtue of another.”4

    Judith Butler conducts an analysis of queer theory in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. They also distinguish between a single woman and a group of women and believe that these two categories have different meanings according to society. They believe that this could be attributed to various factors such as sexuality, ethnicity, and class. To a large extent, these have been put in place due to patriarchy being one of the main components of society.

    Butler's views on the role of women in society and the concept of patriarchy have also been reflected in many of their works, which are listed below.

    Judith Butler Works

    From 1987 to 2020, Judith Butler produced and contributed to many works. However, in this section we will take a deeper dive into Butler's work titled "Undoing Gender" (2004)

    Undoing Gender

    The book Undoing Gender challenges the theory of performativity that was explored in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Through examining the manner in which medicine and law approach and treat those who identify as transgender or intersex.

    Butler explains gender identity rests on performative acts which are influenced by socially constructed norms and values. With this being stated, Butler concludes acts of gender are not automatically performed, they are done with a subconscious intent that is in line with the gender norms of society.


    A concept that states that language is able to function as a form of social action and have the impact of creating the necessary changes.

    Judith Butler Gender Performativity

    In an essay, titled "Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory" (1988), Judith Butler introduces the concept of gender performativity, arguing that gender is not assigned at birth. Rather, Butler concludes gender is formed through the actions performed by the individual. The general belief is that the acts which form gender tend to be polarised, as society has created a system of gender that is binary. In this restrictive binary, individuals are expected to identify as either female or male and behave according to patriarchal gender norms.

    Gender performativity, term introduced by Judith Butler, refers to the idea that gender is not a fixed and inherent quality, but rather a social construct that is constantly performed and re-enacted through everyday actions and behaviors.

    However, Butler opposes this belief and states that it is very much possible to create a new gender identity through performing actions. Butler identifies that in oppressive patriarchal structures, existing outside a gender binary is often considered to be a societal taboo. As a perceived "taboo", anyone who has the intention to behave differently will be sanctioned by society. Butler, therefore, highlights one of the many ways that heteronormative societies create structural inequity for LGBTQIA+ populations.

    Butler also draws a comparison between actors and individuals, stating that actors tend to have the knowledge and understanding that they are acting. When individuals take action, they're performing gendered acts without thinking about it as it seems natural. One aspect that is forgotten about is that gender has its underlying basis in history and is consistently reconstructed, as opposed to being a defined fact. Thus gender evolves over time.

    Judith Butler - Key takeaways

    • Judith Butler is an American philosopher and gender theorist, who provided the motivation for the third wave of feminism.
    • Butler's theoretical critiques have challenged heteronormative societal norms and fed into wider social movements related to LGBTQIA+ rights.
    • Butler holds a strong belief that gender is a social construct and that there can be multiple genders.
    • From 1987 to 2020, Judith Butler produced and contributed to many works. Examples include "Undoing Gender" (2004) & "Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory" (1988).


    1. Dictionary.cambridge.org. 2022. essentialism. [online] Available at: [Accessed 30 March 2022].
    2. Butler, J., 1989. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, pp.1-140.
    3. Ibid.
    4. Butler, J., 1989. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, pp.1-140.
    5. Butler, J., 2004. Undoing gender. New York: Routledge, p.100.
    6. Fig. 1 Judith Butler (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Judith_Butler_cropped.jpg) by Jreberlein (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Jreberlein) licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en)
    7. Fig. 2 Julia Kristeva a Roma (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Julia-Kristeva-a-Roma.jpg) by Guiness88 (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Guiness88) license by CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)
    8. Fig. 3 Jacques Lacan (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jacques_Lacan.jpg) by Blatterhin (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Blatterhin) licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en)
    Frequently Asked Questions about Judith Butler

    Who is Judith Butler?

    Judith Butler is an American philosopher and theorist in the area of gender.

    What is Judith Butler's theory?

    Judith Butler's theory is the gender norms being enforced by society are essentialist.
    Biological sex should not be linked to gender. There should not be any gender norms imposed upon a person of a biological sex.

    Lesbian relationships do not occur as a consequence of men rejecting women.

    How does Butler define gender Constitution?

    Butler defines gender constitution as being a social construct.

    Is Judith Butler a post feminist?

    Judith Butler is not a post feminist.

    What did Judith Butler do for feminism?

    Butler inspired the third wave of feminism to take place.

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    Who is Judith Butler?

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